The turning of the calendar seems to give us permission to reinvent ourselves in some way, to have a clean start. I look at it as not a way to discard the past, but as a chance to review, reflect, and figure out how to move things forward.
As part of the New Year, I appeared in the New York Times, in an article about Lisa Belkin, wondering how people re-enter the career track, comparing my search for a niche and career oriented job, with that of Caroline Kennedy looking to become Senator for New York. Salon.com also picked up the story, and I thought I would re-post both articles here and have my say.
Growing up, my mom always told me that I needed a great education and a career, because depending on someone else, like a husband to define your life and meaning, was leaving yourself in a vulnerable position. “He could get hit by a bus or a secretary any day” my Mom would say, urging me to find my own place, keep involved for my own future, because we always need a Plan B.
My Mom’s life has always required a Plan B. She’s been through three divorces, went to law school and graduated after age 40, and found it very hard to re-enter the workplace herself, besides having everything but a dissertation towards a PhD in Gerentology from the University of Rochester and a JD. She’s worked as a trust officer at a bank, as a clerk for the Court of Appeals, and now does client work from home while caring for my younger sister who has a severe head injury. Not much has gone according to the original script which included happily ever after.
As a result, my life looks a lot different. I went to an ivy-league college and have an undergraduate degree in Biology. I have a JD from the Dickinson School of Law, now part of Penn State. I’m married to an OB-GYN, and because of his insane schedule making other people parents every day, I opted for the Mommy Track, doing volunteer and time-flexible work over the years. I’m now blogging and podcasting, in part in reaction to my son’s learning disabilities and spending so much time researching and talking to experts about him- this has been a way to start to help other parents help their kids in a similar situation. I’ve become involved with the New Media community through Podcamps, and much of my life can be joined together under a loose umbrella of community building, in one way or another.
What I find as a well-educated woman in my early 40’s is that while I feel more certain of myself and my talents every day, I have the work equivalent of a general liberal arts education- lots of diverse experience, ranging from legal work, to helping design the ADA Access program for the Super Bowl with Turner Madden, to working with the Junior Board of Christiana Care, our local Delaware Hospital system, to helping out at my kid’s school and tutoring kids in math. It’s a ton of experience, but it is a broad-base, not a narrowly focused one. As a result, a direct on-ramp into a career is difficult, and may not be my best path. But I certainly didn’t anticipate this when I took the ramp to Mommyville. I only hoped that by keeping my “hands dirty” and still remaining “in the game” that I would still be prepared for “real” work.
My real work now may not be with a law firm, in classic lawyer fashion. I can put myself in the shoes of a managing partner at almost any firm in town and hear them say- “Interesting, but what could you do for us? Where is your niche?” I can make a great case for opportunities for clients to use the web and internet for their advantage, but is this what traditional law firms want to offer on their roster of client services? They probably should start setting up departments dealing with intellectual property and new media, but this is still a nascent field, where there is no real degree or training you can have to prove yourself in this vein. Which brings us all the way back to consulting, and the vagaries of managing your own life and firm- potentially profitable, but hard to scale and grow. As a result, I have a feeling I will have to continue to have to create my own opportunities, find my own value, and work towards an ever-changing, slightly insecure future.
The bottom line is that for all the well-educated women out there who thought the on and off ramps for careers were going to be easy, Sunday drives in the park, allowing them choice and options and never hit any speed bumps at all- we all should have known better. The story is always better than reality. I have found that you can have it all, but just not all at the same time. And over the time interval, your perceptions about what you want and where you’re going change as well. The ride is interesting. Parenting forever changes your perspective on yourself, on children, on what it means to grow and develop personally. I wouldn’t go back and trade any of my experiences, especially spending time with my children at home, for anything. I don’t regret it at all. But I do think we are selling women a bill of goods when we pretend you have time every day to be a great parent and a great worker without also being exhausted all the time, or that you can somehow plan, manage and sequence your life like some giant assembly line.
In life, as in biology and the real world, things are unpredictable. Conditions change. Market conditions change, and you along with them. The evolution of a woman from student to worker to mother to worker is an evolution- we gorw and change and our experiences shape us into who we are. It’s a wonderful journey, and there are many interesting stops along the way. But it’s not I-95 always, and I think women will be better prepared and make better, more informed choices, if they realize coming and going from the workforce is not as easy as flipping a switch. And maybe it shouldn’t be. But it’s definitely more complicated for everyone than we thought, being raised by Moms who also thought that women’s liberation and feminism would make every dream come true. In the end, it’s definitely more nuanced and complicated than I thought.